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Learning to Do Business Italian Style

Interview | Robert EvansRobert Evans is a partner in the KPMG accounting firm in Short Hills and chairman of the New Jersey World Trade Council, an ad hoc group of business, government and academic members that sponsors an annual trade conference and an annual diplomatic reception. The not-for-profit organization is teaming with the New Jersey Italian and Italian American Heritage Commission to host a May 17 conference on trade opportunities with Italy; the event will be in The Birchwood Manor in Whippany. New Jersey exported $604 million worth of goods and services to Italy last year, making it the state?s 8th largest trading partner. Evans discussed the council and next week?s trade conference with Managing Editor John Greenwald.

NJBIZ: What is the mission of the trade council?
Evans: The council has been in existence for approximately 40 years and this is the 34th conference that we?ve had. When the council began it really started focusing on international trade before it was sexy. It began almost like an international chamber of commerce to promote trade between New Jersey and its trading partners. What [the conference] was meant to do was to focus not necessarily on where the trade was today, but on the emerging markets of tomorrow. Over that time period we?ve done pretty much every country and region in the world and we?ve had a history of focusing on different countries before they became popular, like China and Mexico and Israel. So we?ve tried to look at where tomorrow?s markets are as well as where the opportunities are today.

NJBIZ: How does Italy fit into this equation?
Evans: This year we?re looking at Italy because when you look at Europe we think there are opportunities. The exchange rate is right, the climate is right and I think if you look at smaller companies they are probably more comfortable dealing with countries that have more of a history, if you will, than some of the emerging markets. So we looked at different opportunities and we felt that this year was a good one to focus on Italy because one of the lesser known facts is if you look at the population of New Jersey the ethnic group of Italians is really near if not at the top.

NJBIZ: Who makes up the World Trade Council?
Evans: If you look at the infrastructure of international trade in the state it?s really made up of the governor?s office and the administration that?s in power and a lot of major corporations. Over time the Port Authority?s been involved, major companies like Johnson & Johnson, Lucent, AT&T, KPMG, Bank of America, etc., have been involved. But throughout it all there?s always been a major representation by the administration in power. We?re a not-for-profit without a political affiliation, so it?s really just a matter of a business group coming together to try to focus on international opportunities.

NJBIZ: What are some of the state?s chief exports?
Evans: If you look at the products that are prominent in exporting they would certainly be chemicals, optical equipment, telecommunications equipment, plastics.

NJBIZ: What does Italy export to us?
Evans: I think you have a pretty broad array of products. Certainly there are a lot of consumer-oriented products that are coming in, the wines and cheeses. But there is an entire spectrum of different products, including clothing.

NJBIZ: What?s on tap for the conference?
Evans: The morning session appeals to companies that want to get an overview of what the opportunities are and what the nuances of trade between the two countries are. We try to give a broad overview. We don?t necessarily get into a lot of detailed how-tos; it really is a matter of focusing attention on what the opportunities are. We also try to give a sense of the differences in dealing in trade in that country as [compared with] here. We have the consul generals from the countries talk about what some of the opportunities that they see are and we try to have some of the people from the state of New Jersey talking about some of the opportunities to do business here.
So the morning is more of a tutorial that is followed by an international luncheon where you have a lot of what I?ll call celebrities come out?the ambassadors, the governor. They typically talk about things at a high level and some of what they see as the future of trade between the countries and the state. The thing that?s important is that if you look at all the administrations, and I?ve been involved for close to 20 years, each one of the governors has participated and we?re expecting nothing different going forward.

NJBIZ: What evidence is there that the conferences actually stimulate trade?
Evans: If you look at what the conference is supposed to do, it?s focusing attention on different areas of the world. It?s businesspeople talking about what they see the opportunities as being. The administration then typically has follow-on missions to some of these parts of the world and if you look at some of the success that New Jersey has had, with trade being up 20% over the past year, I think a lot of that has to do with the missions that some of the past administrations have taken. I was on one of the missions with Governor Whitman to Mexico and if you look at our trade with Mexico since then it?s increased significantly. If you look at trade it?s really a matter of getting to know the people and their trusting you and you trusting them. So I think it provides a great opportunity not only for highlights for the business community but also for the administrations to give a signal that they?re open for business.

NJBIZ: Is there an ideal size for companies that can benefit from the conference?
Evans: You can find benefits for a number of different companies. When we did China, for instance, you had Merck that had just signed a trade agreement with one of the provinces in China and it wanted to showcase some of the trade that it had with [the province]. There was a ceremonial signing at that conference. There are different opportunities for different companies.

NJBIZ: How can small companies benefit?
Evans: Typically, small companies would not have the resources on their own to get some of the insights available at the conference. And it?s not only insights?you have an opportunity to network and exhibit. So there are a lot of different reasons to attend.

NJBIZ: How large a turnout do you expect?
Evans: Our conferences have normally ranged from a high of around 550 to 300-350 people. The typical conference is around 350-400 people.

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